by Brian on February 7, 2007

in Only in Israel

Ahmed, our tour guide, clearly didn’t know what to make of us. He definitely realized that something about this “typical” American family was odd. We showed a surprising amount of interest in Cairo’s Ben Ezra synagogue where we demonstrated our proficiency in reading the inscriptions in – gasp – fluent Hebrew. We were all “vegetarians” (our way of keeping kosher on the road), which, in a meat loving-country like Egypt, was definitely off the beaten track. And, perhaps most amazingly (to Ahmed), our oldest son Amir, whose name means “prince” in Arabic, studies the language in high school.

“How did he get that name?” Ahmed asked. “What does it mean in English?”

“We just liked the way it sounded,” we lied. Amir spelled with an aleph and not an ayin means “tree tops” in Hebrew.

“But why did you choose it?” he persisted. “You must have had a reason. And what school in California teaches Arabic anyway?”

“Ooh, look at that colossal statue…tell us about it,” we said, changing the subject.

My wife Jody and I had taken the family to Egypt, against a chorus of well meaning naysayers who warned us that it was just too dangerous for Israelis in Egypt these days and had brandished more than a few choice admonishments. We were adamant, however. Ever since I was a little boy I have wanted to see the pyramids, the tombs in the Valley of the Kings, to sail on a felucca up the Nile. And, after all, Tel Aviv is only an hour’s flight from Cairo. How could we live so close and not visit the world’s most astounding antiquities?

Before our trip, our only Egyptian friend, a software developer I have worked with in the past, warned us not to reveal our identities to anyone. Asked whether Egypt was safe, he replied “Absolutely.” Just don’t go around with a big sign reading “Hi I’m an Israeli, shoot me.” (OK, he didn’t say that in so many words, but the gist was the same.)

To placate worried friends and family, we promised not to reveal our Israeli identity while in Egypt. We would travel “Jewcognito,” on our U.S. not Israeli passports, and when asked where we were from would answer “California” (not entirely untrue since we moved to Israel from the San Francisco Bay Area 12 years ago). We booked upmarket hotels and fully guided tours with private drivers to further ameliorate the “danger” factor.

Ahmed was knowledgeable, personable, took a real interest in the children and, when he wasn’t smoking like a chimney, demonstrated a worldliness that made us feel like maybe we could trust him with our “secret.” As we crossed the 6th of October Bridge (commemorating Egypt’s “victory” in what Israelis call the Yom Kippur War), Ahmed decried wars of all kinds, stressing that there were only losers in conflict.

Near the end of our time in Cairo, Ahmed, who had by this point deduced that we were Jewish (at the synagogue he tellingly referred to “your Torah”), volunteered some choice information about Egyptian attitudes. “You know, we Egyptians have no problems with American Jews. But we really hate Israelis.”

He didn’t use the word “dislike” or “are not fond of.” He said “hate” loud and clear. And he said “We Egyptians.” We had no choice. Suddenly, my till-then growing desire to build bridges of mutual cross-cultural understanding was tempered by responsibility to protect my family. We would remain “Jewcognito” for another day.

Upon our return to Israel, though, I was still unsettled. We had shared laughs, and I felt we had truly enjoyed each other’s company. As we said goodbye, Ahmed had given us his email address; I decided to write to him and “confess.”    

“What would you say if I told you we were not only American but Israeli citizens as well?” I wrote.

A full week went by without a reply. Then finally, a message entitled “Warm regards.” I was momentarily buoyed.

“In answer to your question,” he wrote, “my feeling for you and your family was very good….” But then he added, “…even though you are from Israel.” My hopes crashed. Ahmed continued: “And even though we got to know each other, this doesn’t change my position.” That position, I could only assume, was consistent with what he’d said “we Egyptians” feel about Israelis.

But I was not willing to let it end there. I wrote back, including several photos from our trip. This time, Ahmed’s response came the next day. “The photos are excellent. Your children are beautiful. Greetings to your wife and Happy New Year. I hope it is a peaceful one for all.” There was a P.S. “Could I use these photos on my website?”

And another P.S. “If you know anyone else coming to Egypt from Jerusalem,” he wrote, “Please tell them to bring some Israeli cigarettes. I collect them and I’ve always wanted a box with Hebrew on it.”

This article was originally published in The Jerusalem Report in the issue dated February 5, 2007.

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